Bat ’Maternity Ward’ Keeps Bridge Project on Hold in S. Georgia

Thu August 19, 2004 - Southeast Edition

OMAHA, GA (AP) The maternity ward under the Talipahoga Creek bridge is full of ugly babies. With gray, scrawny bodies and pointed ears, the young bats clinging to their upside-down moms can look as monstrous as sci-fi aliens.

But the way the Georgia highway officials see it, they’re still babies. And until they’re big enough to fly off on their own, a project to demolish the bridge will just have to wait.

“I appreciate our animal friends,” said Billy Willis, president of Albany’s Southern Concrete Construction Co., which had been hired to start the bridge project early last month. “You’ve got to live and let live.”

Just before that work was to begin, someone noticed the colony of 200 free-tailed bats living in two narrow expansion spaces under the bridge. Biologists confirmed that some of them were pregnant, and the state and the contractor agreed to put the work off until this month.

Free-tailed bats are a common species in Georgia, but they’re protected by state law just like most other non-game species.

Susan Knudson, ecology and permitting chief for Georgia’s Department of Transportation (GDOT), said state road workers usually know about wildlife issues and can schedule work around them.

“In this particular instance, we were unaware that we had bats at this bridge,” she said.

They’re not visible during the daytime, but their clucks, chirping and twittering resonate beneath the bridge on S.R. 39 about 30 miles south of Columbus. The smell of their guano, a potent plant fertilizer, is also apparent.

Bat moms live in the maternity wing of the colony. They hang upside down under the span during the daytime and nurse their young. When the youngsters are not feeding, some scamper across a concrete support like mice.

Jim Ozier, a Georgia Department of Natural Resources biologist who studies birds and bats, said bats are known to roost under bridges.

“The cement holds a lot of heat,” he said. “Plus, they can forage along streams and wetland areas to eat pests, such as mosquitoes, moths and beetles.”

Recognizing bats’ attraction to bridges, the state has hired Columbus State University biologist Art Cleveland to develop a strategy for sustaining them under bridges and making them feel at home. He estimates as many as 5,000 bats roost under bridges across the state during the summer.

Cleveland and his student researchers began the 18-month project last September. They will check for bat roosts under 800 of the state’s 1,500 bridges. They’ll identify bridge designs and locations that can best accommodate the bats, which are important because they disperse seeds, pollinate plants and feed on pests that threaten crops. Ozier said he will work with GDOT on sustaining the bats, including the possible construction of bat houses under the bridges.

“Bats are worthwhile to have around,” he said. “It’s worthwhile to put a little effort in maintaining habitat, like the DOT and the contractor have done.”